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The Arab World and Its Difficult Present Era - As Seen from Outside

English Pages, 19. 12. 2016

Many thanks for the invitation. It is great to be in Cairo and Egypt again, after more than six years. Last time I was here in February 2010 as President of the Czech Republic on a formal state visit. This visit gave me also a chance to present here the Arabic version of my book “Blue Planet in Green Shackles” which was devoted to the criticism of global warming alarmism. To my great regret, this topic as well as my old arguments remain as relevant now as they were six years ago. The question I raised in the subtitle of the book was quite straightforward: “What Is Endangered – Climate or Freedom?” I am still convinced that we should play neither with climate nor with ourselves.

This last visit of mine – measured in number of years – was quite recent but due to the developments in the region it seems to be another historical era. It was before the – from abroad imported – political destabilization of the region by the instrument called Arab Spring. You know quite well that calling this event an artificial destabilization of the Arab world would be interpreted as politically very incorrect both in Europe and America but I do believe that my formulation isn’t far from reality. This episode opened the door to many tragic developments with long-term consequences. My experience of spending most of my life in an oppressive and non-functioning communist system makes it easier for me to understand it.

As regards this gathering, I have to look back and confess that I found it inspiring to participate in the Second Arab International Public Relations Conference which was held in Vienna two years ago.[1] In my presentation there, I criticized the destructive consequences of the wide-spread dissemination of the ideology of universalism. I had in mind Western universalism. I want to repeat here now that I don´t share the universalistic interpretation of the world and the ambitions (of universalists) to raise it as a normative goal. The progressive or – better to say – progressivistic ideologues and very loud public intellectuals shouldn´t force us to accept this doubtfull perspective.

When I look around, I don´t see just one world community, one universal parenthood, one unstructured bundle of individuals belonging to the Homo Sapiens family. In Vienna I said that: “this may be valid at the biological level, but not at any other, especially not at civilizational, cultural or religious levels” (p. 3). We should accept that we are not identical. Not only that. We shouldn´t be forced to become uniform by any ideology or religion.

The doctrine of universalism – as well as its logical counterpart which comes from the East in the form of Islamism – is wrong, dangerous and undefensible. East and West, Europe and the Arab world shouldn´t be degraded to mere geographic notions. Various parts of the world are authentically different from each other. Everyone who preaches diversity – and this is politically correct these days – should take the authenticity of differences as a logical outcome of his/her thinking. But these people are not logical. The ostensibly politically correct multiculturalists, this would be avant-garde of humanity, are doing just the opposite – they preach diversity at home, but universality (and uniformity) in the world. I find this dangerous. It should be the other way round.

I am – as regards the Arab world – an insufficiently informed outsider and I am aware of it. For that reason I didn´t come here to give an advice.

I am very much suspicious of the profession of the very clever, but only partially informed, definitely not omnipotent international advisors. I am also not pretending to look at the Arab world neutralistically, from a God-like perspective. No one can possess that privilege. I look at the Arab world from the historic city of Prague, from a small Central European, former communist, now EU country. It is neither the traditional West, nor the East, neither a top ten GDP per capita country, nor a developing country. It is definitely not part of the Arab world. This perspective of mine has, I believe, certain advantages – connected both with our communist past and with our current EU membership.

When I look at the Arab world, I see contradictory, not always favourable characteristics. These include:

- the lack of political and economic integration and cooperation in the region. I am in a hurry to add that saying that is not meant as a suggestion to follow the European integration and unification example;

- the interrupted natural, genuine evolution of countries of the Arab world by foreign military interventions and by the attempts to export a Western type of democracy there;

- an implicit, but also explicit ideological crisis, which leads to the intricate, often violent and controversial search for identity and for a new unifying vision;

- the sharpening of religious differences and the surge of militant Islamism;

- the relatively slow economic development due to the failure of old-fashioned industrialization and as a consequence the continuing dependence on oil and gas.

I don´t mean it as a criticism, I am an academic economist turned politician who uses these formulations as a neutral description without any value judgement. I am, nevertheless, convinced that the Arab world needs a systemic transformation in most of its countries as a precondition to any move forward.

This process shouldn´t be based on the import of models, institutional arrangements, and/or behavioural patterns from somewhere. This transformation has to respect the existing, domestic, deeply rooted, socially and culturally formed preconditions and structural characteristics. The Arab world has to find its own way, of course, without disregarding widely shared principles of economics and other social sciences.

When I was here in Cairo eight years ago, attending Czech-Egyptian Business Forum (April 2008),[2] I spoke about our transition from communism to a standard Western society and economy. Some of its aspects were specific, because communism itself was specific, but I do believe that our experience proved to be more or less generally relevant.

The preconditions for success in our endeavour were the following three, mutually interconnected elements:

- a clear and transparent vision of where to go;

- a feasible strategy how to get there;

the understanding and the support of the majority of the people.

We were relatively lucky to be able to put all of these together. In the process of transition, we understood[3] that

1. any fundamental change of that type and scope is a domestic task because parliamentary democracy and market economy – and this was our aim – cannot be imported, cannot be agreed upon at international conferences, cannot be passively “acquired” as a foreign investment. It is a do-it-yourself piece of work;

2. it is a sequence of policies, not a once-for all policy change;

3. the people should be informed in advance about the costs of this manoeuver. These costs may be – especially in the short or medium term – relatively large;

4. the political and economic changes must coincide. Our experience taught us that the changes in both fields, political and economic, reinforce one another.

It is evident that countries in transition need political democratization and creation of institutions of market economy. They need open markets in the rest of the world. They need such social, labor, environmental, safety, hygienic and other standards that they define on their own and that reflect their economic level, not standards imposed upon them from the outside. They need trade, not aid. (There is a huge gap between the foreign aid rhetoric and foreign aid reality. I don´t believe this can ever change. It is in the interest of the foreign aid community – which is a specific rent-seeking group – to make the gap as wide as possible.)

The political side of the transformation process, which was relatively easy in Central Europe because communism melted down without any self-defence and the rest of the world wasn´t against it, is – of course – of vital importance. A democratic and economically viable system presupposes the existence of a coherent, sufficiently homogenous and identity-sharing entity, traditionally called a state, which can be formed only at the level of a country, not in the whole continent. The experience teaches us that liquidating existing states doesn´t help much in increasing freedom but leads directly to the magnification of chaos, anarchy and disorder. To get rid of such a disorder requires a functioning state administration – based on as broad as possible consensus of citizens (by means of democratic elections).

The real challenge for the Arab world – probably with the exception of Egypt – is how to build states when there are no nations of the European (or Western) style. In such a situation, the state is not easily formed. It takes time to do it. As someone from Europe, I know what I am talking about. I know something about the importance of the state. The hasty attempts to unify, centralize, de-nationalize and de-democratize Europe (together with the victory of the postdemocratic redistributive, antimarket, antiindividualistic ideology there) severely undermined the European continent, its freedom and prosperity, its role in the world. As a result of it, there is no rosy future for Europe without a fundamental transformation there. I hope that in this respect, the Brexit had opened a new chapter in the European history.

Let me conclude by stressing my firm conviction that the Arab world will be able to achieve such a transformation. It is not a failed region which should be depopulated by means of mass migration. It has achieved a visible progress and growth in the last decades which will – hopefully – continue in the years to come. I wish you all the best in this endeavour.

Thank you for your attention.

[1] Klaus, V., „The Growing Ambitions of the Ideology of Universalism and Their Destructive Consequences“, speech at The Second Arab International Public Relations Conference, Trend Parkhotel Schönbrunn, Vienna, November 3, 2014. You can find it here: https://www.klaus.cz/clanky/3651.

[2] Klaus, V., Czech-Egyptian Business Forum, Four Seasons Hotel, Garden City, Cairo, 8 April 2008. You can find it here: https://www.klaus.cz/clanky/1386.

[3] See my text “The Spirit and the Main Contours of Czech (or Czechoslovak) Post-Communist Transformation” published in the book „The Great Rebirth – Lessons from the Victory of Capitalism over Communism“, Peterson Institute for International Economics, Washington D.C., November 2014.

Václav Klaus, Arab International Public Relation’s Conference, InterContinental Hotel Citystarts, Cairo, December 19, 2016.


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